Joanna Merwood-Salisbury


On her book Chicago 1890: The Skyscraper and the Modern City

Cover Interview of January 03, 2010


Between the 1870s and 90s the rapid growth of Chicago was interrupted by fierce conflict.  Violent strikes and demonstrations over wages and labor conditions were met with brutal responses on the part of business leaders, the police, and local militia.  These disputes involved not only class divisions but ethnic divisions as well, since the laborers toiling to build the new city were largely recent immigrants, first from Ireland, then from Central, Eastern, and Northern Europe.  Together with an uncompromising war of words in newspapers and broadsheets, these events created an intensely hostile urban environment, an environment that almost succeeded in bringing the city to a standstill.  For Chicagoans, mindful of recent events in Germany, France, and Russia, the threat of social revolution was real.  It was reflected in all areas of life, including emerging urban form.  As much as architects justified the skyscraper as the finest product of the city, socialists and anarchists denounced it as a symbol of class oppression and economic inequality.

At the same time, Chicagoans were forced to confront the environmental consequences of their transformation of the land.  Despite the rhetoric of organism, the built environment and the natural world did not operate in harmony.  The founding of the industrial city meant radical changes to the region’s natural ecology.  The topography was altered to provide adequate foundation for roads and buildings.  The river and the lake became polluted.  High concentrations of people living in squalid slums led to major epidemics.  The magnificent vista of Chicago was obscured by clouds of coal-smoke pouring from the roof of each new building.  All of this environmental change necessitated new ways of thinking about architecture and urban design if the city and its citizens were to survive.

By the turn of the twentieth century, the heroic image of the skyscraper city was all but abandoned.  The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition and Burnham and Edward Bennett’s 1909 Plan of Chicago presented a new agenda for urban design.  The skyscraper, now seen as the expression of laissez-faire capitalism and dangerous individualism, was replaced with a unified and horizontal civic image.  The era of the skyscraper, in existence for less than twenty years, seemed dead.

© 2010 Joanna Merwood-Salisbury